GRAND RAPIDS -- Ask any good banjo picker in the world to tell you who inspired them to pick up the instrument. Chances are the answer will be Earl Scruggs.
Considered a pioneer in the history of bluegrass music, Scruggs' contribution to the evolution and popularity of the five-string banjo cannot be overstated.
IF YOU GO Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday; gates open at 5:30
Where: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, 1000 East Beltline Ave. NE
Opening act: Greensky Bluegrass
Tickets: $40 ($38 for Gardens members) at the box office, Star Tickets outlets, (800) 585-3737, startickets.com
However, Scruggs -- who turned 85 this year -- is perhaps best known outside bluegrass circles for his Grammy-winning instrumental "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which he first recorded with longtime musical partner, guitarist and singer Lester Flatt. The fast and rhythmically complex number was featured prominently in the 1967 hit movie "Bonnie and Clyde."
Flatt and Scruggs also are responsible for bringing bluegrass music into the mainstream with their 1962 hit song "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for the highly successful TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies." The two musicians also made several appearances on the show, acting as family friends of the Clampetts and solidifying the duo's popularity worldwide.
When Scruggs performs Thursday at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park as part of its summer concert series, the banjo prodigy will be joined by his sons Randy and Gary, who have played with their father since he and Flatt parted ways in 1969.
Scruggs, who was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th annual Grammy Awards in 2008 and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, said he still loves to perform and plays 12-15 shows a year.
"I enjoy playing," he said. "You don't quit doing something you love."
Gary Scruggs, who also manages his father, said the show ""incorporates sort of a little musical history tour. It goes back to some early Flatt and Scruggs songs and includes Earl Scruggs Revue songs that we recorded back in the '70s. (We) also include more recent material."
Throughout his career, Earl Scruggs has distinguished himself from traditional bluegrass artists, not only with his innovative banjo style, but also with the music he has chosen to record. For example, he and Flatt undoubtedly created an uproar among bluegrass purists when they covered several Bob Dylan songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rainy Day Women #12 and #35."
However, he still maintains the same attitude when it comes to picking songs.
"We go by a good song, it doesn't matter who has written it," he said.
Over the years, Scruggs has performed and recorded with such diverse artists as Dylan, the Byrds, Joan Baez, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and Sting.
"I enjoy working with other people," he said.
Born and raised in North Carolina, Scruggs says he caught the bug to play as a small child.
"We had banjo and guitar both in our home," said Scruggs, who taught himself to play. "I was playing, just switching around on banjo and guitar, but banjo was my first love."
By the time he was in his teens, Scruggs was playing at local dances and, while he didn't invent it, he revolutionized what is known as the three-finger picking technique on banjo, utilizing the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of the picking hand.
By his early 20s, Scruggs had landed a gig with the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, as a member of Monroe's band the Blue Grass Boys. It was there that his syncopated banjo picking style, which incorporated blues and jazz phrasing, first gained notoriety.
"I was doing it before I ever met Bill Monroe," Scruggs said. "I call it hillbilly -- it's just old country music that I did over in North Carolina."
Gary said it's more than that.
"I'll jump in and brag a little bit on my father," he said. "What he did was develop new banjo rolls and patterns that enabled him to play a song (in a way) that would bring out the melody lines stronger than what was being heard by earlier three-finger pickers.
"His technique was a Rolls Royce compared to a T-model, if you want to make a car analogy from the difference that he brought to what was being played previously."